stem cells

New stem cell method could pave way for new diabetes treatment

by Barbara Hewitt on December 29, 2017

A new method for producing insulin-producing beta cells from human stem cells could pave the way for more effective treatment of diabetes, according to scientists in Denmark.

The stem cell study conducted at the University of Copenhagen shows how a more efficient method may also prove significant to the treatment of a series of other diseases.

Stem Cells

(CI Photos/Shutterstock.com)

‘By identifying the signals that instruct mouse progenitor cells to become cells that make tubes and later insulin-producing beta cells, we can transfer this knowledge to human stem cells to more robustly make beta cells,’ said professor Henrik Semb from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Centre for Stem Cell Biology at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

The research group, originally set out to study how the body creates the complex piping systems that transport fluids and gasses in our organs as they wanted to understand the machinery for instructing progenitor cells into their different destinies.

To their surprise, the mechanism turned out to be simple. According to Assistant Professor Pia Nyeng, these processes are mainly controlled by the progenitors’ ability to tell up from down, the cells’ so-called polarity.

The same signal, the so-called epidermal growth factor (EGF) pathway, can control both the formation of pipes and beta cells through polarity changes. Therefore, the development of pancreatic progenitor into beta cells depends on their orientation in the pipes.

‘It is a really amazing and simple mechanism, and by affecting the progenitor cells’ so-called polarity we can control their conversion into beta cells,’ said Nyeng. He added that while the study is mainly based on tests performed on mice, the researchers decided to examine whether the same mechanism can be found in human cells.

They discovered that the same cell maturation mechanism applies to the development of human cells. ‘Now we can use this knowledge to more efficiently turn human stem cells into beta cells in the laboratory with the hope to use them to replace lost beta cells in patients suffering from diabetes,’ Semb explained.

The researchers expect regulation of cell polarity to be key to the development of many other human cell types, for example nerve cells. This may contribute to the development of stem cell therapy targeted at other diseases.

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